Sylvester James, the queen of disco, was an unlikely star, says Joshua Gamson, the author of The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco. "An androgynous, cross-dressing, openly gay, African American, falsetto-singing, unapologetically flaming man-diva influenced primarily by church women, black blues singers, drag queens, hippies, and homos… Sylvester rode his marginality right into the mainstream: a star not despite the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality he eagerly crossed but because of them."
Now, 25 years after his untimely death from AIDS, the iconic legacy of Sylvester, the “Queen of Disco,” will be resurrected with Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits (Fantasy Records), an 11-track release, available on CD and on double pink vinyl, that features a number of original album tracks and 12” mixes that are rare or no longer available on CD, as well as the brand new remix of the iconic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Grammy-nominated remixer and DJ Ralphi Rosario.
A good friend of Harvey Milk, Sylvester has long held a special place in music and socio-political history. Sylvester was not only one of the first disco stars to be openly gay (some say today Sylvester, who wore female clothing almost exclusively at times, would identify as trans), but bravely crossed beyond the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality to become a star in San Francisco and the national stage. As AIDS began to devastate the city, Sylvester's songs became anthems about continuing to live on, celebrate queer and trans lives despite the disease that was surrounding everyone. He too eventually died of AIDS in December 1988 and upon his death, bequeathing royalties from the sale of his music to benefit two charitable organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area: the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand. Sylvester is one of the few major artists to donate their royalties to charity in perpetuity.
“Decades later, even as strides have been made in the fight against the disease that has taken so many lives, Sylvester’s music lives on, a call to be fabulous against the odds,” says Gamson.
Proceeds from this CD will also go to benefit those same two groups. The AIDS Emergency Fund, which was founded in 1982, was one of the nation’s first responders to the AIDS epidemic, helping AIDS patients live with dignity in their final days. Today it still provides annual housing and utility payment assistance to more than 2,000 people battling HIV or AIDS. Project Open Hand, another Bay Area institutions, is a nonprofit organization that provides meals to seniors and the critically ill in San Francisco and Alameda counties.
On the next few pages, we've pulled together some of the most iconic images of Sylvester, who is still so popular he has is own Facebook page and Twitter account.